Meet Gowanus-Based Ceramist Michele Quan

Michele Quan, pictured with items she designed for a special installation, makes hand-painted ceramic bells and garlands in her Gowanus studio.It’s impossible not to be struck by the vivid colors and graphic motifs that adorn Michele Quan’s ceramics. In her spacious studio in Gowanus, the self-taught artisan crafts mostly home and garden accessories, including bells, ornaments, and garlands with hand-painted patterns that range from constellations and Buddhist prayers to skulls and vibrant stripes.

Quan’s pieces, sold under the label MQuan, are often suspended like pendants on a necklace—a slight nod to her former career as a jewelry designer. Her garlands, for instance, which are inspired by Buddhist prayer beads, feature dozens of ceramic disks strung onto thick hemp. “I envision them hanging in trees or outside a house,” says Quan. “I don’t like to call it tree jewelry, but it’s a little bit of eye candy.”

Quan, a native of Vancouver, made jewelry for more than 10 years before deciding to switch careers. In 2005, she started taking ceramics classes at the Manhattan nonprofit Greenwich House Pottery, and in 2011 she began selling her work, which is available at ABC Carpet & Home and boutiques across the country. “After having my daughter,” she recalls, “I was looking for a creative outlet, and it turned out that I loved the work.”

The artisan's output ranges from plates to ceramic links.To make one of her signature spherical bells, Quan begins by rolling out a slab of clay and using a cookie cutter to create two circles, which she presses into semicircular molds to form each half of the bell. She then scores the edges of both halves, places a small ceramic ball inside, adheres them with slip, and smooths the piece. Next, Quan shapes a ropelike piece of clay, which she attaches to the top of the bell to serve as the loop through which a piece of hemp string can be threaded, and carves a slit in the bell’s bottom to give it sonority. The bell is then left to dry. To lighten the exterior without sacrificing its speckled finish, Quan applies a filmy white clay-based liquid to the surface and fires the piece in the kiln. Then she paints the design before firing the bell once more. “The form itself takes so much time,” she notes, “but I learned that the pattern requires equal attention because it can completely transform the final product.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 2016 issue of NYC&G (New York Cottages & Gardens) with the headline: Free Spirit.